The UK has managed to avoid recession for the moment even though it’s suffering an unpleasant bout of inflation.
One of the reasons for this is one of the lowest unemployment rates in 50 years – 4.2 percent (in October 2023) – combined with a large number of people leaving the workforce for several reasons, including ill health. Indeed, Office for National Statistics (ONS) data published in 2022 (based on Census 2021) found that between June and August 2022, “around 2.5 million people reported long-term sickness as the main reason for economic inactivity, up from around 2 million in 2019”.
But there is more to the story. A recent post on The Conversation, “What is driving current labour market shortages and how older workers could help”, notes that while some think that COVID-19 is the main cause of workers departing, the real reason is more mundane – a general decline in workers aged 35 years and under along with an ageing workforce.
This isn’t a problem unique to the UK – countries around the world are experiencing demographic change along with falls in population. As a January 2023 Euronews story, “The countries where population is declining”,commented, China’s population fell for the first time in 60 years. Numbers are also falling in Italy, Portugal, Poland, Romania and Greece (albeit partly because of migration). Japan has a serious problem related to an ageing population due to low fertility and immigration rates.
Emma Delap, managing associate at Lewis Silkin, sees increased life expectancy and declining fertility rates driving the ageing of the world’s population. She says, “This demographic challenge looks set to continue, and there are now more people aged 65 and older than there are aged under five.”
Employers – globally and in all business sectors – are struggling to recruit. As the RCVS’s 2019 Survey of the Veterinary Profession recorded, 34.4 percent of vets are over 50, 17.3 percent are 60 to 69 and 7.4 percent are aged 70 or more (Robinson et al., 2019). It won’t be long before these cohorts think about retiring. The older worker is a resource waiting to be tapped.
The older worker comes with benefits!
Keeping the employment cycle running requires more than a decent job with appropriate pay and conditions; it also requires either the young to feed into the process or the old to stay employed. Given that there’s little that employers can do to influence the birth rate, this only leaves them with the ability to influence the departure of their more experienced staff along with attempts to hire others from the same generation. Not to mention there’s a body of evidence to show that older workers can bring much to the table.
Keeping the employment cycle running requires more than a decent job with appropriate pay and conditions; it also requires either the young to feed into the process or the old to stay employed
A 2017 report from the Centre for Ageing Better, “Fulfilling work: what do older workers value about work and why?”,reckons that there are clear benefits to employers in retaining older workers and keeping them engaged. It noted that just because a worker has grey hair doesn’t mean that they cannot perform well beyond state pension age. “Many older workers may actually be more adept in their role because of the expertise they have gained,” says the Centre. “They often have highly developed communication skills and can confidently solve problems, handle tricky situations and contribute well to teams. Older workers often have unique insights and good judgement gained from their years of experience.”
From a practical perspective, it states that “older workers have lots of skills and experience to offer, employers can benefit by taking steps to retain their existing workers as they get older as well as to recruit older workers into their organisation”.
The legal background
At this point it should be said that age is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 (EqA). In short, this means that employees must not be treated less favourably due to their age unless this can be objectively justified. Emma explains that the EqA protects employees of all ages, so employers “must be careful that any benefits or policies they introduce which aim to support older workers do not unjustifiably disadvantage younger groups”. Equally, though, employers must find a balance between paying proper attention to the needs of their older employees while not indirectly discriminating against them on the grounds of age.
While “positive action” to address underrepresentation of other protected groups, for example women and people from certain ethnic groups, is permitted, says Emma, she warns that the legal framework around positive action is heavily restricted. Notwithstanding this, she explains that “age is an unusually protected characteristic because, although employees of all ages are protected, employers are allowed to positively and directly discriminate on age grounds – where this can be objectively justified”.
Employers must find a balance between paying proper attention to the needs of their older employees while not indirectly discriminating against them on the grounds of age
She continues: “Direct discrimination on age grounds is only allowed on legitimate social policy grounds (not the private interests of the employer) but, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, this could encompass objectives such as ensuring a generational mix or facilitating the participation of older workers in the workforce.” In other words, employers do have some legal leeway when it comes to initiatives aimed at recruiting and retaining older workers.
Retaining the older worker
Employers must recognise the need to give older workers a reason to stay active through challenging work that uses their skills and experience since money may not hold the same attraction as free time. Giving these workers some freedom over what they do and how they do it, along with flexibility over hours, is one way to accomplish this.
It’s not all about the money
A December 2022 survey of 2,000 older workers for workingwise.co.uk found that older workers are “tired of feeling overlooked and undervalued at work”, with 48 percent of those considering retiring saying this is “because they are fed up with their job” – significantly higher than the 34 percent who said ill health would cause them to retire (Williams, 2022). The survey also found that 62 percent of older workers said they needed greater flexible working, 51 percent said they needed to be valued more, 43 percent needed higher pay and just 38 percent said they wanted a good benefits package.
Thus, it’s evident that for many older workers life isn’t all about money. However, Emma points out that the government currently offers online assistance to encourage people to undertake a “Mid-life MOT”, considering work, health, money, etc. She says toolkits are available to help employers offer this type of assistance in the workplace and recommends “employers could take advantage of this existing programme, or they could offer other, privately organised, advice and assistance. It is unlikely that someone would choose to work for an employer simply because they offer this type of benefit, but existing employees may find it helpful, and it may assist them, to look at opportunities and arrangements to keep them in work longer.”
Another aspect to consider is the suggestion that older workers are more likely to want to collaborate with others or have contact with clients and members of the public. Interestingly, more than two-thirds of employees in a December 2022 Harvard Business Review study, “7 principles to attract and retain older frontline workers”, prioritised “fun places to work”. The study noted also that many essential roles can be monotonous and difficult, so a “fun-loving workplace where employees enjoy each other’s company can mean a lot to the frontline experience. What is more, customer satisfaction and employee happiness are correlated.”
‘With the news that the UK retirement age could soon increase to 68, employees in their early 50s will still have nearly 20 years left of their career and employers who fail to invest in developing the skills of this crucial talent pool could be missing a trick.’
Allied to this is the ability to keep learning – in May 2023, Business in the Community (BITC) noted that in research conducted by YouGov, only 21 percent of older workers (aged 50 to 59) felt that their employer pushed them to upskill at work compared to 56 percent of those aged 18 to 29 (BITC, 2023). Kate Carr, employment and skills manager at BITC, commented that “it is crucial that employers support all workers, regardless of age, to learn and develop in their roles”. She added: “With the news that the UK retirement age could soon increase to 68, employees in their early 50s will still have nearly 20 years left of their career and employers who fail to invest in developing the skills of this crucial talent pool could be missing a trick.” The last part of that sentence is the key for it recognises the fact that employees need to be given a reason to stay in the workforce.
The review also found that older workers prefer managers who make plain their expectations. Meeting this expectancy is simple – employers just need to train younger managers on how to properly communicate to staff in all age bands.
Adjustments and flexible working
It is just as important to note that as we get older our health needs change; aches, pains and medical conditions can lead a worker to feel that it’s time to retire. Employers need to make workplace adjustments if they want to keep older workers. Suitable adjustments don’t have to be expensive – they can be as simple as access to appropriate physical adjustments, together with equipment that can help reduce the physical effort required to complete a task.
To make work more age-friendly, reduced hours or the ability to be flexible on times and possibly the location of work is a vote winner
Many young parents consider flexible working essential, but the same also applies to the older worker according to the workingwise survey. It noted that “work–life balance is a huge issue for older workers: 85 percent said what they want from work has changed since they were younger, with the most significant reason – cited by nearly three quarters – being that they want more work–life balance”.
And so, to make work more age-friendly, reduced hours or the ability to be flexible on times and possibly the location of work is a vote winner. It’s a point backed by the Harvard Business Review study which found that an important part of a great workplace culture is flexibility regarding shifts and leave of absence.
It’s clear that we’re in an age of tight recruitment and that all avenues should be explored. Older workers have much to offer, and a wise employer will target them much as they would someone fresh to the workplace.
Older workers have much to offer, and a wise employer will target them much as they would someone fresh to the workplace